A Glossary of Inspirations: C. (Part I)
Cal - I was thirteen when Ripken broke the streak (2131 games in a row). It was a momentous day in Baltimore, but there was absolutely nothing exciting about the process. It’s only now that I’m older which I realize just how momentous that event was. Just what kind of presence of mind does it take to stay in a city and team gone to rot? This is why no ballplayer has ever meant more to their city than Cal did to us. In years when this city had no hope, Cal was our one constant. He was a shepherd for a flock gone awry.
Camus - What a difference there was between Sartre, the idiot smarty-pants who wrote incomprehensible prose and never met a totalitarian system he couldn’t praise at the expense of democracy, and Camus, whose no nonsense flat prose (which, admittedly, can sometimes be as dry as Sartre’s) disguised one of the keenest most common-sensical minds of the 20th century. There were two main differences between Camus and Sartre. Though he spent adolescence in the southwest, Sartre was practically born to the privilege of Alsace protestants and the vagaries of German philosophy, his mother was a close cousin to Albert Schweitzer and his family was from precisely the upper bourgeoisie which he inveighed against so often. Camus hailed from a dirt-poor Algerian family. When the Algerian war occurred, the difference was as clear as ever: Sartre knew little about Algeria, supported the entirety of the rebellion and did not hesitate to point an alabaster finger at the entire French population as complicit in the crimes of occupation. Camus lived and breathed Algerian soil for his entire youth, and pleaded for a peaceful reconciliation to save his country rather than forcible revolution that would destroy it. The world never needed intellectuals so badly as they did to explain where civilization had gone so wrong in the hands of alleged intellectuals from the Nazi and Communist parties. The choice was clear. Few intellectuals could have been more wrong than Sartre, and few more right than Camus.
Candide - The perfect little book or the magnificent long-winded opera? 80 pages of bile-infused satire, or three hours of laughter and tears intermingled with boredom? I know far too little else about Voltaire, and far too much about Bernstein. In the coming years, I hope to remedy both.
Cantillation - I don’t think much of blood or collective unconscious explanations, but there are certain memories in the innards of all of us from which we cannot escape. Sitting in shul every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur of my life as I have, listening to cantors intone the prayers to inscribe us into the book of life, creates a very deep, spooky impression. I can’t imagine that contemporary Christians who don’t remember life pre-Vatican II can understand what it’s like to watch and listen to a clergyman intone prayers in a language of the past and a style of the past. It is a primal, ancient theater that summons up the ghosts of history - seeming to tell you that even if God is not watching you, they most certainly are. Lewis Black once likened the Judaism’s most famous High Holiday prayer, the Kol Nidre, to watching bats fly out of an organ. That covers most of it, but it does not give voice to how moving it is. This is the sort of religion that inspires both fanaticism and awe. Whatever its moral implications, no one with a soul can help but be influenced by what they hear from cantors.
Capitalism - Lest anything from the last post make people think otherwise, I am no socialist. I believe in enterprise, I believe in industry, and I believe in investment. I do not hold with people who say that capitalism is corrupt at its very core, and there’s something comical about ultra-privileged intellectuals showing sympathy for people and movements which would put them in prison lock and key for uttering subversive thoughts. I do not, however, believe in capitalism as it is currently practiced. We in America are at war with the libertarian point of view, and moreso than any amount of social conservatism, libertarianism is the most destructive philosophy in our country. It holds that all good things happen only to those who are entirely self-created, and all the rest of us are ants undeserving of their assistance. It will be the ruin of all we know about our society if it is not stopped. For at least two generations, conservatives have enjoyed pointing out the hypocrisy of prosperous liberals running down the system that made them rich. We now have an equally ridiculous stock right-wing figure, sucking on the government teet’s largesse even as he derides it and wants to destroy it. Libertarianism is simply socialism stood on its head, and as a movement, it comes ever increasingly close to Lenninist Communism (indeed, “Lenninist” is exactly the word Grover Norquist uses to describe his position on taxes). It has quite a few more miles to go before America becomes the Soviet Union on its best day in reverse, but how have we ever come so much closer in so little time?
Casablanca - The only proof we need that everything which was stupid about Hollywood was also amazing. A black comedy that makes you cry with hope, a weepie that makes you snicker with cynicism. A war film for girls, a chick flick for guys. A history lesson with music, a musical with important historical background. Casablanca may have problems as a film, but it is a perfect movie.
Cash - Occasionally, you hear a singer who makes you remember just how pre-packaged and micromanaged most American popular culture is. Such singers show you that this culture has produced some of the greatest art known to man even as it makes you despair that you ever grew up in a place so vapid. Johnny Cash was the adult in the room, singing about adult themes with the adult agony unvarnished for his adult audience. Unlike most stage ‘badasses,’ there was no sense of this rebel being a sociopath in disguise who takes you for a ride - he was simply a man filled with the righteous anger we all have a right to feel that life is not better than it is. An artist whose songs were filled with every conceivable human emotion and experience on the planet, within the simplest rockabilly means ever used by a great artist. And a great artist was exactly what Johnny Cash was.
Cather - My Antonia is just about the very last book which should be read in a high school English class. What can any 15-year-old possibly know about the ‘precious, incommunicable past’? What can any modern person know about the hardships of life on the rural prairie? It takes an enormous feat of imagination for any modern middle-class American to relate to Cather’s pioneer hardships. Cather will survive (and must survive), but her stock is no longer equal to writers in the generations before and after her (often less deserving writers). When I read Cather, I hear echoes of my grandparents’ stories of the shtetl and the rural farms. I’d imagine that many American immigrants, to this day, would recognize themselves in her books as well. It wouldn’t be as surprising if it seems that Willa Cather, an archconservative even among that right-wing group known as Great American Writers, were cited by some future Hispanic-American writer who grew up the child of migrant workers as his/her greatest influence.
Cello - Everybody’s favorite instrument. If I could do it over.... I’d probably play the piano, but there are certain instruments we musicians will always regret being unable to play. For me, it’s the French Horn and the Cello. It can go almost as high as the violin, yet its resonances are infinitely richer. Whether it’s Dvorak’s cello concerto, or the five cello soloists in the William Tell Overture, or the twelve cellists of Arvo Part’s Fratres, or the Brahms cello sonatas, or the Bach Cello Suites, or the Swan. There is some sort of human warmth a cello reaches of which no other instrument is capable (except the French Horn). Even the cello is but one weapon in the arsenal of the orchestra, and even if the piano can imitate the cello’s warmth without reproducing it, the cello is without equal - the most human of all non-vocal instruments.
The Vital Center - This does not mean centrism. I am no centrist (unless you ask leftists). I’m weary of movements, dogma, and groupthink, but I am no lover of cautious moderation by either temperament or intellectual principle. I do not believe that the middle point between two random points is the correct one. I believe in facts. I believe in statistics. And I believe they speak for themselves. Most people would claim the same, but I don’t think they do much to support that belief. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people devote their lives to gathering facts with as much integrity as they can. Statistics are not perfect representations, but they’re as close as we’re going to get. In any functioning society, statistics are the center of any discourse, and any movement with either socialist or libertarian leanings is not the center of discourse around which a functional society exists. Any movement which wishes to frame facts to suit their theory rather than suit their theory to the facts gravitates to an ideological extreme. It is only liberals who will suit their theory to empirical evidence. If, by some miracle, indisputable empirical evidence showed that low taxes for the rich, illegalizing abortion and gay marriage, and drastic cuts in spending on social programs made a greater, happier, more prosperous society, any true liberal would change his beliefs unhesitantly. It is because facts and empirical evidence shows this not to be the case that liberals believe this is not true. A socialist would cling to their beliefs no matter what the result, because theory and dogma is more important to socialists than practical outcomes. But the tenets of liberalism have changed from generation to generation to suit the new empirical wisdom which every generation gained over the previous generation of liberals. Liberalism, not moderation, will always be the Vital Center of discourse. It was once the pluralistic and sometimes religiously motivated Vital Center between twin secular polls of fascism and communism. It is now the secular Vital Center between the increasingly prevalent twin polls of fanatical Islam and fanatical Christianity.
Chagall - Chagall died when I was three years old. But I suspect he will be the Jewish artist for all time. For any Jew with ancient associations to previous cultures, Chagall is our dreamscape. He’s the bizarro mirror through which we imagine what life was for ancestors we will never, and can never, meet. He is the supernatural world of Biblical and Folktale times when humans took it for granted that they mingled with spirits - their primitivism rendered in the most worldly, sophisticated painting techniques yet known to man. Has any painter, Jew or Goy, ever captured the language of dreams so well?
Chaucer - At the beginning of the Canterbury Tales, Harry Bailey, keeper of the Tabard Inn in Southwark, proposes that each pilgrim tell two tales on the way to their pilgrimage, and two tales on the way back. It’s been a while, but if memory serves, only 40% of the characters get to tell their first tale. Therefore, The Canterbury Tales as we’ve known them throughout history is roughly ten percent of its planned length. Had it been completed, the world would be a very different place today. Even if there are parts of the book that are unreadably boring (and that’s the joke, Chaucer made them deliberately unreadable), The Canterbury Tales are still the greatest, most entertaining, funniest, most moving, and most disturbing representation of human personality in the history of literature until the arrival of Shakespeare - and arguably after him too. And far more than Shakespeare could, encumbered as he was by the reality of humans speaking his text, Chaucer could lay his work with the very limits of his imagination. Chaucer is the one writer who exceeds Shakespeare in coined English words. He can have a single tale burble on for the length of Hamlet, and another go simply for the length of a Biblical parable. The Canterbury Tales is not a perfect work of art, in fact it’s about as imperfect as great art gets. But its imperfections make it all the more magnificent.
Chekhov - Tolstoy has not yet made the oceanic influence upon my life he has upon so many millions of others. His behemoths lie in various states of incompletion on my bookshelf, and while I enjoy them, I can’t say that I’m shaken to the core. Tolstoy was a Count, and he clearly understood virtually everything there was to understand about aristocratic life, and nearly nothing about the peasant life which he abandoned literature to so glorify. He clearly understood this weakness of his, but he thought that art itself was something aristocratic and therefore corrupt. Perhaps he’s right, but I think that Chekhov is the ultimate proof that he isn’t. And then there’s Dostoevsky. I don’t believe that Dostoevsky is the greatest writer since Shakespeare, but I believe he was the most inevitable and perhaps the most necessary. Readers like me can recognize the staggering brilliance of Dostoevsky’s vision, but we should be forgiven if we’re terrified by what that vision illuminates. No writer has ever seen human beings for the monstrous animals we are with the clarity of Dostoevsky’s hysteria - and yet no evil in Dostoevsky is half so creepy and disgusting as the fascist vision of Christianity which he proscribes as the only cure for our beastliness. If this is the ultimate vision of humanity’s inner psyche, then we were better off not knowing what was in there. Dostoevsky was no saint, he was a demon sent to trap us in a suffocatingly autocratic world. The only cure for Dostoevsky is Chekhov. For me, it is Chekhov, not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, who is the greatest writer since Shakespeare - and I sometimes wonder if Chekhov is not in fact better than Shakespeare himself. Chekhov fully acknowledges the brutality in Dostoevsky’s vision, and because of its lack of Dostoevskian dogma, it is sometimes all the more brutal because it lacks the possibility of Christian redemption, but he also observes with perfect Tolstoyan irony how easily our anguish could have been avoided. He pities us our suffering, but he is pitiless in how he refuses to absolve us for how pathetically easy it would be for us to live happier lives. Shakespeare talks about kings and dukes and gives us lower class figures as ridiculous figures of comic relief. Chekhov gives lower class figures every bit as much dignity (and ridiculousness) as their upper-class foils. As a fiction writer, there can be no greater model - he shows every character in their glories and in their flaws. He is neither comic nor tragic, he is neither satirist nor romantic. Like very few artists: Mozart and perhaps Jean Renoir are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head, who can represent all the facets of life as we human beings live it.Chicken Soup - The basic building block of life, my life at least. Most grandmothers were the best cook ever, but only one grandmother was able to make Bubbe Tucker’s chicken soup, for which I was spoonfed by both my grandparents on either side until I was seven or eight if I did not eat plentifully enough at one sitting lest I grow too thin. If only they could see the fruits of their labor...